On the path to improving finances, exceeding one's budget is a common setback. It might go like this: You set financial goals, go through your income and expenses and come up with a budget you swear you'll stick to. Then, like clockwork, you end up over budget each month. This could leave you feeling like your efforts to make positive financial progress aren't working.
Fortunately, the struggle to stick to a budget isn't impossible to come back from, nor is it a reason to give up. Building new habits to support your efforts can help you get back on track—and stay there. Here are five no-nonsense ways to ensure that you don't go over budget.
1. Create a Buffer
One way to ensure you stop going over budget is to restrict yourself to a spending plan that's a bit less than you could actually comfortably budget for.
It's a psychological trick, and for it to work, you have to convince yourself that your lower budget is the maximum you can afford to spend. Then, if life happens and you do still end up slightly over, you'll simply eat into the buffer—no damage done.
How to Create a Budget Buffer
First, decide how much to keep in your buffer. If you have a few months' history of your planned spending versus how much you actually spent, you could use this information to help set a practical goal.
Then, to create a budget buffer, you'll need to find some spare funds to set aside. To get there, you could try a no-spend challenge. Put whatever you save away in a designated budget buffer fund. To get the most bang for your buck, consider opening up a high-yield savings account where you can store your budget buffer and earn some interest.
Your goal is to not eat into that buffer. If you do, you'll need to replenish it. That can give you added incentive to stick to your spending plan.
Find High-Yield Savings Accounts
2. Track Everything Manually
Sometimes, the simplest way to break a habit is to simply notice it. If runaway spending is your budget's downfall, a solution could be to start physically recording everything you spend in a day. You could do this on pen and paper, in a spreadsheet or on the notes app on your phone or computer.
Of course, if you're currently tracking your spending automatically with a budgeting app—or if you aren't tracking at all—accounting for every dollar manually can be tedious. But, in this case, that could be the reason it works: Having to write down everything you spend can make those small impulse purchases, like grabbing a coffee or buying new clothes online, less appealing. It gives you a second to hit pause and ask if you really need it.
Once you shift your mindset toward being more conscious of where you tend to overspend, you might not need to track by hand anymore. At that point, you might find it more convenient to switch to a budgeting app that tracks and sorts your transactions for you.
3. Try Envelope Budgeting
Envelope budgeting, or cash stuffing as it's often called, is a budgeting method that takes an analog approach to controlling spending. This strategy has you physically put cash into envelopes for different categories of spending, such as groceries, dining, entertainment and so on. The idea is that if you physically see your dining out dollars dwindling, you're less likely to head out to eat anyway.
The major downside of envelope budgeting is that it's inconvenient, and digital payments are sometimes the only practical way to pay for certain bills. One solution is using an app for envelope budgeting, such as Goodbudget. Another is using this method for just discretionary spending, and maybe only for a period of two or three months. That can give you time to get a firm grasp of your money and build the skills that will enable you to spend within your budget long term.
4. Cook at Home More Often
It isn't revolutionary advice, but it could be the difference between sticking to your budget and falling off track. After all, food can be a tempting place to overspend. For example, you may find yourself tempted to order delivery when you're not in the mood to cook.
But ordering food on impulse a couple times a week can pretty quickly send you over budget. Cooking at home is usually considerably less expensive than eating out, and that's especially true if you build meals around cost-effective ingredients like pasta, rice, legumes, frozen produce and poultry.
To make it easier to resist ordering food delivery, you could try prepping meals in advance. Or, research weeknight-friendly meals that excite you enough to lessen the temptation to order in.
5. Try a Weekly Budget
Instead of taking your monthly income and creating a plan for how you'll spend it for the whole month, try looking at your weekly income and creating a weekly budget instead. Taking a shorter view can make it easier to keep your budget plan front of mind, and it gives you the opportunity to be flexible.
How to Handle Monthly Bills if You Budget Weekly
Many bills come on a monthly basis. One way to handle this is to add up the average of all your monthly, non-negotiable bills (utilities, rent, phone and internet, debt payments and the like) and find the total you need to pay them. Be sure to round up to avoid coming up short.
Then, divide your total by four, and put that much money into your bill bank account each week. So, for example, if all your bills for the month add up to $1,400, aim to put $350 into the account you'll pay bills from each week. Then, pay your bills as they're due. Try treating your savings as a bill, too, putting aside some money each week.
Another method is to check with your bill providers to see if you can request a new due date. Then, spread out your bills so that the amount you owe each week is roughly the same. Since your rent or mortgage payment may be due the first of the month, for example, see if you can ask to have your car payment or utility bills due in the second half of the month.
The rest—deciding how much you can afford to pay for groceries, dining out, shopping, entertainment and the like—is pretty straightforward. You can plan how you'll eat and what you'll do for the week around your budget, which can be simpler than planning ahead for a whole month.
Budgeting Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Staying within a budget isn't easy, but sticking with it can help you find what works for you. You might find that reevaluating your budget to give yourself more wiggle room in an area where you often overspend can make your budget easier to follow. For example, you could reduce your retail budget to allocate more toward dining, or vice versa.
Beyond that, remember that budgeting is a means to achieving your goals. Getting clear on what you want to achieve, and focusing on those goals when you're facing budgeting challenges, can help you stay the course.